Weird fiction is one of the most appealing sub-genres for fantasy writers, yet one of the most difficult to pull off well. All too often authors simply think that the styles of Lovecraft, Derleth and Blackwood can be imitated simply by including elements these luminaries used in their more famous works. While inhuman abominations, obscure cults, and ancient relics which shatter the protagonists’ perception of reality frequently appear in this genre they are merely peripherals, not the core which is necessary to capture the essence of these stories.
James Portnoy and Daniel Floyd of Extra Credits discussed how often Lovecraftian tropes such as the Cthulhu mythos are mishandled in games (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DyRxlvM9VM). To paraphrase their analysis, Cthulhu (and by extension other cosmic horrors) can’t simply be enemies to fight because that diminishes their true impact. The true terror comes from the revelation of how insignificant humanity is, how for all our achievements there are forces which we are powerless to control, powerless to comprehend without going mad. The entities aren’t tangible foes, but a constant presence that makes the heroes feel insignificant and helpless. Their goal isn’t to defeat the monster, but to survive for as long as possible with their sanity intact.
Few games are able to realize this concept in their narratives. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem,Silent Hill 2 and 3, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth and Lone Survivor managed to portray the player characters’ slowly dwindling grip on reality in an impressive manner, but since players could fight back, there was no sense of overbearing weakness. More recent games likeAmnesia: The Dark Descent, Saya no Uta, even Cookie Clicker create a true feeling of disempowerment since players are unable to defend themselves. Their only options are to run, hide, or endure for as long as possible until the horror overtakes them. Falling into the latter category is Polish developer The Astronauts’ debut title The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a supernatural detective story that pays proper homage to the forefathers of weird fiction.
When innocents are threatened by dark forces, they call upon Paul Prospero to save them. A world-renowned paranormal investigator gifted with the power to see beyond our world, Prospero has tackled hundreds of cases involving the unknown and unnatural. His notoriety has earned him a large following of young fans which regularly writes to him. One of his admirers, Ethan Carter, sent a letter discussing strange occurrences in his hometown of Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin. Concerned by the disturbing phenomena Ethan mentioned, Prospero set out for Red Creek Valley to offer his assistance. Upon arrival, he instantly felt the evil that had gripped the small village. Every resident of the town appears to have been brutally murdered, and reality itself appears to be fracturing due to the presence of a being referred to as “the Sleeper.” Prospero must tread lightly as he searches for Ethan and the source of this sinister influence, or this will be his final case.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter certainly fits the criteria of weird fiction as defined by Lovecraft. While bloody murders and mysterious apparitions abound, they aren’t the true source of dread the game elicits from players. The real terror arises from discovering what led the townsfolk to commit such horrible acts. Was the Sleeper controlling them, or did something else remove their inhibitions? Red Creek Valley’s landscape shifts depending on where Prospero travels without warning. Time and space skew yet players have little or no control over when it will happen. Players have no safeguard against whatever evil threatens them; their only recourse is to keep pressing forward and hope they will live long enough to complete their task. Morbid curiosity about what new enigma I might come across and how it would affect the story created an almost constant frisson that kept me drawn in. I didn’t mind spending half an hour wandering around looking for a necessary object because the thought of uncovering some new hidden secret was too compelling.
There’s only one segment where the tone falters – in the mine there’s an area where players must navigate a series of passages while pursued by an undead miner. If caught, the ghoul will suddenly appear before them and howl, sending them back to the start of the area. While it does enhance the sensation of frailty and weakness since players are unable to fight the monster, the cheap screamer ruins what had been a consistently subtle climate of fear. I don’t know why the developers included it, but if they needed a pursuing force to put players under pressure, they could have done so in a way that didn’t rely on overdone jump scares.
I felt The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s greatest strength was in how it made me question the reality of the game’s world and the sanity of its inhabitants. Prospero’s visions of the past reveal how several members of the Carter family have succumbed to the Sleeper’s influence and were willing to murder Ethan to satiate its desires. Those who attempted to resist tried in vain to break their relatives free, stating that they were all sick and needed help. When I heard this, it raised the question of whether some other factor had affected their minds, and whether Prospero would also fall victim to it before he completed his investigation. At several points I actually did think Prospero was under the Sleeper’s sway, most notably in the mines when I kept descending down identical tunnels. For a few minutes I thought I’d been trapped in some endless loop, but in actuality it was just a long passage.
With the exception of the murders, every strange event in Red Creek Valley was linked by short stories Ethan had written. Whether it was an astronaut who lured Prospero into a space capsule, a massive stone seal holding back a monster known only as the sea-thing Gnaiih, or a house with shifting rooms, braving each ordeal would lead to a hastily scribbled tale connected to the event. After finding the stories, though, the areas transformed from mystical to mundane – an alchemist’s lab became a moonshine shack, and a witch’s hut was nothing more than an abandoned campsite. Was Ethan’s writing changing the world around him? Was it another effect of the Sleeper’s power? Or, as I later thought, was everything just happening in Prospero’s head?
As I drew closer to the end of the story I began to wonder if anything I experienced was supposed to be real. Prospero claims to have the power to walk between different worlds and hear the voices of the dead, abilities that he uses frequently during his investigation. It wouldn’t seem out of place for a tale of the occult, but then I realized that since he was the only character present throughout most of the game, there was no way to verify if what he saw or heard was actually happening. Everything in Red Creek Valley could have simply been a hallucination.
Strengthening this theory were the questions asked by the witch as I tried to find her home; probing philosophical inquiries such as “Do you feel victory when your words cause pain?”, “Does death bring peace or suffering?”, and “Does sin come from the heart or the mind?” I began to suspect that Prospero’s subconscious was tormenting him, perhaps dredging up guilt over a past crime. Without spoiling anything, when the truth was revealed in the finale it was a rather tragic surprise.
The influence of Lovecraft and his contemporaries is displayed well, referenced when the situation calls for it rather than becoming overbearing. One of Ethan’s stories mentions the Necronomicon, while a burned note next to a corpse has an expanded version of the frequently referenced couplet from the tome “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and in strange aeons even death may die.” The Sleeper and Gnaiih are the developers’ own additions to the pantheon of Great Old Ones and Elder Gods, entities which surpass human understanding and build legions of followers by manipulating human minds. Gnaiih is such a massive creature that the only visible parts of its body are colossal tentacles, a reference to deities in the Cthulhu mythos which resemble cephalopods. Red Creek Valley itself could serve as a substitute for Innsmouth, Arkham, Brichester, or any other small isolated town where darkness breeds.
Paul Prospero is a fairly standard world-weary detective. His internal monologues convey a bitter, cynical outlook on life. He’s clearly been scarred by the horrors he’s encountered over the years. Prospero wants to save Ethan but he can’t hide the fatigue in his voice, the clawing doubt that he’ll fail. Since Prospero’s main purpose is to move the story along, he isn’t very dynamic, though his actions at the end of the game show a truly noble character. I would have liked to learn more about some of his past cases, but the revelation during the finale explains why he hasn’t mentioned any previous exploits in specific detail.
The Carter family is much more fascinating. They’re only seen in flashbacks, usually in the process of killing one another or being murdered. Ethan’s fear is tangible – he unleashed an ancient evil by accident, and as a result those he loved are more than willing to kill him to satiate the creature’s desire. His mother Missy, brother Travis and uncle Chad are completely under the Sleeper’s thrall, trying to find the best way to murder the boy. It’s chilling to see people pushed so far over the edge that they have no issue killing a child, a member of their own family. Only Ethan’s father Dale and grandfather Ed showed resistance, though it became progressively weaker. They were determined to keep Ethan safe for as long as possible, even if it meant killing those who would bring him harm.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter promises to deliver “a narrative experience that does not hold your hand,” and it certainly lives up to that description. There are no markers on the map indicating where to go next and no option to provide hints when stuck on a puzzle. All players can do is press on until they find the clue they need or figure out the necessary solution. It’s a simple yet effective way of encouraging players to explore and exercise critical thought.
The crux of the gameplay involves reconstructing murder scenes. As players travel through Red Creek Valley they’ll come across the bodies of the Carter family, most having been killed in particularly savage ways. They then have the ability to inspect the corpses and objects around the crime scene, possible theories about what transpired floating about each item. Usually one or more pieces of evidence will have been removed from the area. The investigation can’t proceed until these missing clues are found, though locating them isn’t an easy task.
After investigating the spot where a missing object used to rest, multiple copies of its name will float around. Moving the mouse around will cause the words to converge into one when players are looking in the direction the item can be found. Once they’ve come together, the player can sense where it’s located, getting a brief glimpse of the surrounding area. As mentioned earlier though, these locations won’t be marked on a map; they must be sought out by looking for a landscape that matched the vision.
Once every piece of evidence has been retrieved and inspected, Prospero’s powers enable him to reconstruct the crime. Specters of those involved will materialize to show what they were doing at various points in time. The players then have to put these events in chronological order to show how the murder played out. Some parts of the timeline are easy to put in sequence based on where characters are located and any items they may have or lack, though some of the visions are a bit vague and could apply to several steps. It may take some trial and error to deduce the proper order, but there’s no limit on how many times a reconstruction can be attempted, and with enough logical analysis the correct sequence can be determined without much stress. After witnessing the gory crime, one of the characters will make a brief comment that hints at where to go next.
Uncovering the tragedy that befell the Carter family is the driving goal, but it’s not the only objective to focus on. Ethan’s stories pertaining to the strange events in Red Creek Valley aren’t simply optional collectibles to enrich the game’s world. All five must be found to reach the end of the game. Most of them don’t require much effort to locate, requiring little more than a simple puzzle or brief exploration.
There are only two instances that offer a considerable challenge. The first is an abandoned house where the rooms shift and must be put in the right order to reach the attic. The correct layout is actually found in another house, though drawing a rudimentary map may prove more helpful. The second and potentially most frustrating puzzle takes place in the mines. Players need to locate six corpses which will be used to reveal the code to open a massive stone seal. However, they will be constantly pursued by a zombie miner and sent back to the start of the area if caught.
If players have missed any stories when they reach the final location, a map is available which will transport them to that area. However, there is no return teleportation, meaning players who use the map will need to walk the entire distance back. It’s annoying, but it demonstrates the importance of diligent exploration.
The fantastic visuals made Red Creek Valley feel even more alive. Incredible effort was put into making textures as realistic as possible: chipped paint, bark flaking off trees, moss growing on rocks, and tracks in the dirt of varying depths. Admittedly there were points when the textures wouldn’t pop in immediately, and leaves lost their resolution when I got too close, but that’s a problem I’ve noticed in just about every game I’ve played. Whenever Prospero used his powers to view beyond the veil of the real world, everything was cast in a sickly blue shade that added to the feeling that something unnatural and disconcerting was at work. The only design flaw I noticed were the faces of the Carter family; the proportions of their features were off. Though maybe this was another way to make the game’s world feel more off-putting. I also had an issue with excessive shading in a church and some mine tunnels that made it very difficult to see where I was going. Then again, the game did warn me that it wasn’t going to be that easy.
I found the background score that occasionally played to be reminiscent of that from Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls. Violins, flutes and acoustic guitar blended together to make a calm, relaxing melody, but the inclusion of synthesizers and bells added a telling dissonance. It suggested that despite the pastoral appearances of Red Creek Valley it was hiding something evil, that nature’s beauty was there to lure people into a false sense of security so they were unprepared for when disaster struck. While the music was impressive, I actually preferred the times when there was nothing but ambient sound. Silence made every situation seem more tense, and with every noise I heard, whether it was ominous whispers emanating from nowhere or the shrill cries of crows, I grew concerned that something malicious was coming after me.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter hits all the right notes regarding what a supernatural mystery should contain. It’s well paced, has a compelling plot, the twists are surprising without being outlandish, prefers a more nuanced psychological horror over excessive blood and gore, and is able to organically elicit fear, sadness and intrigue. The development team at The Astronauts have produced a stellar launch title that shows how committed they are to their goal in creating immersive, atmospheric narrative-driven games. I look forward to seeing what new stories they’ll tell in the future.